What Was the Star of Bethlehem?
Matthew 2 provides the familiar account of the Magi coming to see Jesus, and what is often referred to as the “star of Bethlehem.”
After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh (vv. 9–11).
What an extraordinary story—wise men traveling from the East, a star appearing to guide their way, and gifts offered to the Messiah. Who were these wise men? In all probability, they came from Babylon. Babylon was the center of a civilization that had for ages had an advanced understanding of astronomy. Of course, in those days, astronomy was closely related to astrology. This seems odd to us today. Yet in the ancient mind, they were closely related. If you think about it though, Americans still read horoscopes. Many Americans can’t begin to name the twelve tribes of Israel, but they can certainly tell you whether they are a Leo, a Pisces, or an Aquarian. In Babylonian culture, those called Magi were serious students of the stars. They were students of astronomy and also of astrology. Anecdotally, we know that after the Babylonian captivity, there was still a large community of Jews present in Babylon. Perhaps because of this, when the Magi saw this astronomical phenomenon they reasoned that a king was to be born in Israel. They understood this star’s appearing to have messianic significance. Even though these Magi were Gentiles in name, they were filled with excitement because of this event. We don’t know how large this group of Magi was, but they likely journeyed some five hundred and fifty miles from Babylon to Palestine to see the Messiah and worship Him.
Their guide was a star. But what was this star? It was certainly one of the most spectacular phenomena ever witnessed. I recently read The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem by Dr. Colin R. Nicholl. Dr. Nicholl describes at length just what this star, or comet, was. He argues that the star of Bethlehem was a natural phenomenon—what scientists call a “great comet”—that appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth. These are comets that appear and reappear, orbiting over long periods of time. Thus, the star would be something like Haley’s comet, which returns to earth every so often, though Dr. Nicholl shows that the star of Bethlehem was not Haley’s comet. God had preordained the star of Bethlehem to appear at this time to indicate that the Christ had been born, just as He had ordered history to lead up to this point.
We understand, of course, that God could have made a star appear out of nothing and then vanish again. Christianity is thoroughly supernatural in its convictions. However, we must distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. God is the God of both realms, and they are irrevocably intertwined. Further, we must distinguish between the ordinary and the extraordinary. The ordinary natural laws of the universe are nothing less than the ordinary ways in which God in His providence governs the universe. In the end, God governs all things—the natural, the supernatural, the ordinary, and the extraordinary—and He works through these things in a variety of ways. Dr. Nicholl makes the case that this star was a natural phenomenon, though supernaturally ordained by God.
In the ancient world, comets were often seen as omens. They could either be good or bad, and they testified to a great human or natural event. That is, a comet could anticipate a great birth or death, a great battle, an earthquake, or a volcano. The Old Testament banned astrology, but at the same time, God was not loath to use natural phenomena to manifest things of great importance in time and in space. For example, when Moses stood at the Red Sea, with Egyptian chariots behind him and the waters in front of him, God used a great wind to part the Red Sea and see the Israelites safely through. God often uses ordinary—or “natural”—means supernaturally. He times things miraculously. We see here, again, the intertwining of the natural and supernatural, the ordinary and the extraordinary. It is not unlike the way God sent His glorious Son to be born in an ordinary stable. There, the miraculous was born among the ordinary. Angels and shepherds both praised Him. The star ultimately led these Magi to the promised Messiah, and they worshiped Him. Let us also worship Him during this Christmas season.